VTA Glutamatergic Neurons Mediate Innate Defensive Behaviors

M. Flavia Barbano, Hui Ling Wang, Shiliang Zhang, Jorge Miranda-Barrientos, David J. Estrin, Almaris Figueroa-González, Bing Liu, David J. Barker, Marisela Morales

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The ventral tegmental area (VTA) has dopamine, GABA, and glutamate neurons, which have been implicated in reward and aversion. Here, we determined whether VTA-glutamate or -GABA neurons play a role in innate defensive behavior. By VTA cell-type-specific genetic ablation, we found that ablation of glutamate, but not GABA, neurons abolishes escape behavior in response to threatening stimuli. We found that escape behavior is also decreased by chemogenetic inhibition of VTA-glutamate neurons and detected increases in activity in VTA-glutamate neurons in response to the threatening stimuli. By ultrastructural and electrophysiological analysis, we established that VTA-glutamate neurons receive a major monosynaptic glutamatergic input from the lateral hypothalamic area (LHA) and found that photoinhibition of this input decreases escape responses to threatening stimuli. These findings indicate that VTA-glutamate neurons are activated by and required for innate defensive responses and that information on threatening stimuli to VTA-glutamate neurons is relayed by LHA-glutamate neurons.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)368-382.e8
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 22 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuroscience(all)


  • innate escape behavior
  • lateral hypothalamic area
  • looming
  • predator odor
  • threatening stimuli
  • VTA
  • VTA calcium imaging
  • VTA-GABA neurons
  • VTA-VGluT2 neurons

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